Everything You Need to Know: The TaxSlayer Bowl
How to Watch: Kickoff at noon on ESPN
Spread: Louisville -7 (Bovada)
Last Time: The Cards played against Mississippi State in a four-year stretch from 1973-76, losing all four games. However, due to alleged NCAA violations, the Bulldogs were forced to vacate their wins in 1975 & 1976.
The Bulldogs technically lead the series 4-0, but due to the violations, this leaves the series tied at 2-2.
Meet the Mississippi State Bulldogs:
23rd ranked Mississippi State finished the regular season at 8-4, including a 30-point win against ranked LSU. They also took Alabama to the wire in one of their final games of the regular season, before dropping the finale to rival Ole Miss.
With head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham leaving Starkville to take over the vacancies at Florida, running backs coach Greg Knox takes over as interim head coach. Knox has coached at Mississippi State since 2009, and has led multiple running backs to the NFL such as Vick Ballard and Josh Robinson.
Players to Watch:
- QB Keytaon Thompson
Dan Mullen has built a reputation as a quarterback developer. He recruited a lot of dual-threat guys who he could help polish their throwing mechanics, and has led multiple quarterbacks to the NFL (ex: Alex Smith, Dak Prescott).
He had another talented quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, but then he suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the regular-season finale against Ole Miss. This put true freshman Keytaon Thompson in the starting role immediately, and fortunately for the coaching staff, not a lot had to be changed in terms of their scheme. Thompson was the Louisiana High School Player of the Year in 2016, and the #12 QB in the 2017 class according to 247Sports.
He’s a dual-threat guy that is still raw in the passing game right now, but has the speed to take read options or scrambles for big gains. He has impressive size as a dual-threat quarterback (6’4″, 222 lbs.) and looks to be the future at the position, once Fitzgerald leaves.
- DL Jeffery Simmons
The Bulldogs boast a pair of stout defensive linemen in Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. Simmons was a five-star prospect that chose Mississippi State over rival Ole Miss, and emerged as one of the top nose tackles in the country this season. He, along with Sweat, were selected as first-team All-SEC players with double-digit tackles for loss (12.5 for Sweat, 11.5 for Simmons). Simmons has also been a key figure in their special teams, blocking a couple of punts this season.
- RB Aeris Williams
The extra reps for the bowl game will help Thompson get ready, but I’d still expect Williams to carry more of the load in their offense tomorrow. With a raw quarterback that still needs to find his groove in the passing game, using him (as well as Thompson’s scrambling prowess) can be parlayed into opportunities for play-action, if they have success.
Williams finished the regular season with 1,019 yards and five touchdowns. Due to Fitzgerald’s production and stature as an all-conference quarterback, it has made Williams seem like an underrated running back in the SEC. He has great acceleration in hitting his gaps and getting to the second level, one that should be watched in tomorrow’s contest.
- Louisville DL v. Mississippi State OL
With senior defensive lineman James Hearns sitting out of the bowl game, this leaves Louisville even thinner at defensive end. Jonathan Greenard and Trevon Young will have to face a Mississippi State offensive line that is top 25 in nearly every advanced metric. But Louisville has been better in rushing the quarterback, with eight sacks in the last three games and showing signs of defensive competency.
It’s important for Louisville to generate the pressure needed to stop Mississippi State’s vaunted running attack. The Bulldogs rank 14th in rushing yards per game (249.6), and average 5.17 yards per carry as a team. Forcing Mississippi State into passing-down situations could give Thompson some trouble as a pocket passer, and potentially lead to turnovers.
- Lamar Jackson v. Mississippi St. Defense
In what could be his final game as a Louisville Cardinal, Jackson has an intriguing matchup against two of the better defensive linemen in the SEC. Sweat and Simmons should challenge Jackson’s ability to scramble and create plays for himself, and it’s reasonable to expect that Mississippi State will try to create pressure from all angles.
If Jackson can buy time for himself, that would leave opportunities against a vulnerable Mississippi State secondary. In the Bulldogs’ four losses this season, they allowed almost 22 yards per completed pass. Ole Miss had a lot of success with the vertical passing game, and Louisville could do much the same with Jaylen Smith or Dez Fitzpatrick.
Other Storylines to Watch
- Louisville DBs: Jaire Alexander declared for the 2018 NFL Draft and will sit out of this game. In games without Alexander, the Cardinals allowed 40+ points on three occasions and struggled to get off the field.
- Lamar Jackson Stat Watch: If Jackson gets three rushing touchdowns, he will become the first FBS player with back-to-back seasons of 20+ rushing and passing touchdowns each. He also needs 129 rushing yards to break his own single-season rushing record, and has rushed for over 100+ yards in six straight games.
- Martinas Rankin v. Jonathan Greenard: Rankin, an All-SEC first team offensive tackle, will likely matchup against Louisville’s Greenard, who leads the team with seven sacks.